Do you know what the good residents of the Athens neighbourhood of Exarcheia did when they realized that their main square had become a centre of the drug trade? Senior citizens stood on the square with a megaphone and announced as loudly as they could: “You, there! I saw you passing the dope palm-to-palm to that guy with the striped top! And you, I know YOU! I’ll call the police and they’ll catch you with hundreds of pills in your pockets.” The drug dealers left because if there’s something that freaks them out is being stared at.
You see, it’s not all doom and gloom for Athens and, let’s generalise, Greece. Yes, the country has been living beyond its means. Yes, the Olympics and a corrupt state have bankrupted the country. And yes, the euro has rendered Greece uncompetitive. But there have been encouraging signs and even a cynic like me has reason to be optimistic.
Firstly, unlike Ireland where the recent bailouts have led to an exodus of youthful talent, the young people of Greece are willing to grapple with the problems. The large majority of Greek students in England, for example, seem to be emotionally tied to their families and, maybe after a few years of post-study work abroad, eventually return to their homeland.
The quality of these young people who speak several languages fluently and are ardent Europeans is very high. During this trip of mine researching for the Rough Guides, I have had to deal with them in marketing firms, in the Greek National Tourist Organisation, in individual hotels. They were all fantastic professionals. The older generation have been made redundant and a new, eager one is being given a chance and has started grasping the bull by the horns.
Secondly, the problems in Greece are largely those of the state. Private enterprise, although clobbered, still makes profits. Greece grew 0.8% during the first quarter of 2011. New mobile companies have started up, Wind being the latest. Greek private banks have posted large profits. As a saying here goes: “get a client into your shop, even if what he brings in is street dirt”, so Athens winter sales last year offering discounts of 40% started in, wait for it, November!
Hotels have now reduced their prices to remain competitive. Greece has returned to the Oriental tradition of haggling and I advise all tourists to engage in it when booking rooms (if we stay three nights, do we get an extra night free?)
Finally, the Greeks themselves seem to have grasped the reality of the situation. Athens is not the 24/7 playground it used to be with people staying up until 2am or 3am on a school night. Even three years ago I arrived at the bar-and-club hub of Gazi at 3am and people were still flocking in. This Xmas I also arrived at 3am and people had started to leave. People have cut down on bars, restaurants, short-haul trips, designer clothes and going out.
I’ll finish with an encouraging sign that cheered me in Salonika: Greek taxi drivers used to pick up many passengers en route, if going roughly in the same direction. Every passenger paid separately and fully, but the taxi meter showed just the one fare, netting the taxi driver an invisible income of twice or three times the nominal one. This was a typical example of tax evasion with public collusion, which robbed the state of much-needed income.
Well, then: a month ago, I was in a long, really long, taxi queue at Salonika’s bus station after arriving from Vergína. A taxi with a passenger drove by, touting for extra clients. “Anyone going to Kalamariá?” shouted the driver.
Not a single person moved.